The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the U.S.A. on the basis of sex. What was going on in Nantucket around the time when American women finally got the vote?
In 1920, on the eve of ratification of the 19th Amendment, Nantucket’s year-round population had fallen to 2797, its lowest point since the mid-1700s. Of the total population, 36% were registered voters, and they were not all men.
In November 1918, there were 997 registered voters on Nantucket, and 198 of them were women. Women’s right to vote was restricted, however. Repeated efforts to pass full suffrage for women had failed in Massachusetts in the 1870s. Finally, in the spring of 1879 a compromise bill passed and was signed into law that permitted Massachusetts women to vote, but only in local school board elections. Nantucket women cast their votes for the first time in February 1880.
From the mid 1860s on, the Nantucket newspapers had frequently reported on the Woman Suffrage movement, and by the 1870s Nantucket had its own friends of Woman Suffrage organization. The paltry voting rights extended to women in 1879 must have rankled, and relatively few Nantucket women took advantage. Several times a year the Inquirer and Mirror listed new voters. In November 1918 there were only six new voters, all male. In February 1919 four more had registered, all male. In September of that year there were eleven new voters, all male, and in November 1919 twenty-two more had registered, still all male.
When the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920, a notice directed to the women of Massachusetts appeared in the newspapers. It reminded them that the law requires voters to register and gave directions how to do so. The announcement concluded, “There are probably a million women in Massachusetts who are eligible to vote, and the task of registering them will be enormous.”
The Inquirer and Mirror reported on October 30, 1920, that the Nantucket Registrars of Voters had been busy registering women, but given the island’s diminished population, their task was not enormous. By the beginning of September 1920 seventy-one new voters had registered, and fifty-five of them were women. The first three Nantucketers to cast their votes in September primary elections were women. Fourteen more women and only two men had registered by October 23. By October 30, 1920, a total of 331 women were registered voters on Nantucket.
Among the new voters were Clara Parker, librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, and her stepmother, Harriet Parker. Clara Parker served as the Atheneum’s librarian for fifty years. By the time she died in 1970 at the age of 93, she had seen vast changes in voting rights for American citizens.
An open letter addressed to the newly enfranchised women of Nantucket in the Inquirer and Mirror on October 23, 1920, urged them to organize in advance of the upcoming Town Meeting to finally put forward their own local interests: “Hitherto we have had no say in our town affairs. We have had to look on and see objectionable matters settled in spite of our protests.” Referring to the May 1918 vote to rescind the exclusion of automobiles from the island, the writer called attention to “the referendum in regard to the admission of the once legally prohibited automobiles (which was no referendum for us women as we had no vote in it).”
In 1926 Nantucketers elected educator Anne Ring to the Board of Selectmen, the first woman so elected not only in Nantucket but in the whole Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And then, inexplicably, forty-six years passed before another woman was elected to the Board. Since then eight more women have been elected to what is now the Select Board, and currently, for the first time, women members are in the majority.